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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

I Don’t Want to Treat Dog Cancer!

Updated: March 12th, 2019

Summary

Don’t want to treat dog cancer? Dr. Dressler talks about how that’s totally, 100% understandable. Also, none of our business.

don't want to treat dog cancerSome people receive a diagnosis and decide they just don’t want to treat dog cancer.

Wow. Do you have any feelings about this? I bet you do. Let’s look at this situation.

Is It Wrong If I Don’t Want to Treat Dog Cancer?

Is it wrong? Is it right? Well, as with most complex issues, the answer is not black or white, yes or no, one thing but not the other.

We humans are strange when confronted with bothersome subjects. Typically, we like to make things simple and create two choices in our mind … and then decide one is correct as quickly as we can.

But reality usually has nothing to do with two choices.

Reality does not really care about limiting options so things are easy.

Dog Lovers Are As Different as Their Dogs

Over the years I’ve worked with many kinds of dog guardians. Some of them live out of their car in beach parking lots. Some of them fly me out in one of their planes.

Whatever their life circumstances, all of my clients come to me because they need help with their loved pets. It’s my job to fix the problem. And when it comes to canine cancer, things can get tricky, because sometimes fixing is not in the cards.

Some Cancers Can’t Be “Fixed”

I’ve spent most of my career trying to find new solutions for hard-to-fix-pet-problems, yet I still don’t have “the cure” for cancer when it can’t be physically removed, for example, by surgery.

Sure, I’ve seen many surprising cases where what we have done has defied the odds in a good way.

But saying “I can cure your dog’s cancer” when it has metastasized is not the truth.

Sure, there have been miraculous cases with miraculous results, but can I assure any person of a miracle in their dog’s specific case?

No.

What I CAN offer is a broad array of tools to help make things better.

Better than if we had done nothing, and sometimes a lot better. But not every single time.

Some Cancers Can Be Helped, for a While

We can look at diet, apoptogens, immune support, side effect strategies, drugs, surgery, homeopathy, homotoxicology, experimental tools, manual therapies, acupuncture, herbs, mind-body approaches, life quality enhancement, chronotherapy, and more. Much of this is discussed in my book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.


Struggling to make a good decision? This book will really, really help.

But I still can’t promise the cure for systemic cancers (cancers that have spread).

Sometimes things are so advanced I can’t do much at all to help, except try to increase comfort.

Every Type of Medicine Has Limits

When you think about it, this is a strange situation.

A dog lover comes to me and finds out their pet has systemic cancer. They usually hope I can fix it and can resolve the problem. I’m the guy for the job, right? I’m the guy who literally wrote the book!

I did, and I’m glad I did because it’s helped hundreds of thousands of dogs over the years … but even so, it might turn out I can’t do that much to help this dog lover’s very specific dog.

Very quickly we confront the limitations of medicine.  And I am not referring only to the limitations of Western (allopathic) medicine.

There Is No One Approach That “Works” for Cancer

For all of you out there who insist that “the cure” for all these dogs with systemic cancer is actually the “alternative” approach if only someone would just listen, I can tell you that you’re just wrong.

I’m not only open to these tools, but I use them daily in actual clinical pet care. And there is no substance on this planet that always cures cancers that have spread.

Similarly, if you are one of those who believes “the cure” for systemic cancer is chemotherapy, radiation, or other conventional approaches, you are wrong, too. Those don’t “work” any better or more consistently than any of the other tools in other systems of medicine.

Tools have specific uses. A hammer is good at being a hammer and stinks at being a nail.

The same is true for allopathic (conventional medicine) tools. They are good for what they are good for, and no more.

It’s also the same for holistic/complementary/alternative tools. They are good for what they are good for, and no more.

No tool is perfect, and no tool does everything.

Anyone out there fist-pumping about how people doing acupuncture are quacks, or about how only evil people give their dog antibiotics …

… well … put your fists down.

Some Things Are Unfixable

Unfixable happens sometimes.

I hate to write it as much as you hate to read it, but it’s necessary to understand why sometimes people don’t want to treat dog cancer.

Some people are so overpowered by grief they cannot understand any information I provide after they hear the word “cancer”.

The experience of acute stress messes up our ability to comprehend things.

That is why I devoted the first section of the Guide to guarding the guardian, even though I still get flak from some folks who think that touchy-feely stuff is beyond my scope of practice.

But without clear thinking on the part of the guardian, things turn out badly for our loved dogs. And getting clarity can take some time. More than a 30-minute consult in a vet’s office.

My Job: Provide Clear Info

It’s my job to provide clear and honest information. By honest, I mean really explaining what I DO know and what I DON’T know. Being sober in my assessment, and clear about what the numbers say and whether they are relevant or not.

I have to balance good quality research, personal experience, and the experience of others whose input is based on real-world, clinical experience of a large number of dogs.

I can’t rely on the internet rumor mill.

By the time I’m done, clients have what they need to decide. Usually, the person needs to take some time to digest things. Maybe they want to get more information too before they decide what to do. And what one person decides could be totally different than what another person would decide.

(I hear that many readers of my book rely on the private Facebook group to help make clear-eyed decisions, because members of that group are exceptionally kind and supportive, and do not judge each other.)

Your Job: Making a Decision That Is Right for YOU

When a dog lover makes their initial decision about treatment, they have usually done a lot of thinking.

They weigh many factors unique to their dog, cancer itself, and many other things affecting their guardianship.

The nice thing is, of course, that changes are usually possible in the future, at least for a while. As cancer progresses, choices might no longer be valid, and new choices might be necessary.

For example, surgery that might be possible now might not be possible later in the year, if the tumor has grown too much or invaded other structures.

That’s why it’s important to get all the information up front and weigh it all out.

But whatever the decision is, it’s none of my business thinking it is “correct” or “not correct.”

When You Don’t Want to Treat Dog Cancer

So maybe you are like some clients of mine, or readers of my book, and you want to do absolutely nothing at all to treat your dog’s cancer.

Are you a cruel, inhumane, terrible person who should be shot?

I’m certain you aren’t. But I’m also sure that you know some people who might think that about you, even if they don’t say it out loud. Or worse, they DO say it on social media comments. Ick!

So let me answer that question for you.

Wait, I won’t. That question, and the self-righteous, holier-than-thou indignation that some people receive, due to their well-considered choices, needs to be put where it belongs.

In the garbage.

It’s OK to Not Treat Your Dog with Cancer

Let’s assume that those who decide to not treat their dog have taken the time to absorb good information about the diagnosis, and, based on that, they have decided the right choice is no treatment.

You know what? That is okay. There’s no rule that says you MUST treat cancer, or you are not a good dog guardian if you refuse treatment.

Here’s some perspective: some people don’t bring their dog to the vet at all, for various reasons.

Some people don’t view animals as family members, especially in other places in the world.

Should I be shocked that a farmer did not treat his goat’s cancer, and should I gossip with my friends about what a bad person he is?

Are goats any more or less intrinsically valuable than dogs?

We Don’t Know!

I don’t know every detail about anyone’s life, probably not even my own.

Maybe there is something going on in a person’s life that makes treating their dog’s cancer a bad choice. Maybe they lost their house in a fire and they need to feed and clothe their children.

Maybe you or I would do the same thing in their shoes.

You Don’t Have to Tell People

People enduring hardship (and everyone endures hardship, even those you think of as more fortunate than you) often must put up with a lot of unsolicited advice. This is particularly common these days in social media.

I know some people have regretted offering up information about their dog’s cancer because we can’t unsay things we say.

Sometimes it’s better to keep things private, or at least communicate only with selected people.

Unless, of course, you appreciate the wide array of input you will be getting from everyone all over the world about what you should do for your dog.

Stop Giving Unsolicited Advice

I have often wanted to tell other people how to do things and what choices to make, even people who have not paid me for a consult.

I used to offer unsolicited advice all the time.

Maybe I’ve mellowed with age, or maybe managed to squeeze out a few drops of wisdom from experience, but now I see that I’m wrong when I try to convince someone of something, especially when they have not asked for my input.

Sure, a little information may be appreciated, but that is all.

For example, offer something strictly helpful, like “go talk to so-and-so, who knows more than I do about the subject.”

I’ve learned that I don’t know what I am talking about regarding most things.

And Take Advice Only from Those Who Know

I do know a lot about dog cancer in general, but, as I hope I’ve made clear, I never know how an individual case will definitely “work out.”

I do know about animal medicine in general, but like most people who are experts, the more I understand about animal medicine, the more I realize that what I don’t know is much more than what I DO know.

And I’ve devoted most of my 47 years to this field.

When it comes to my own and my family’s health, I have high standards for what “knowing what you are talking about” means.

People who know what they are talking about are not hobbyists, part-timers, or dilettantes. And its most definitely not Youtube watchers or Facebook learners who pick up a couple of things that may or may not be true.

I don’t want any advice from a dabbler or headline reader who has not actually worked in the field, and for a long time, when my loved ones are at stake.

The same is true, of course, for my pets.

Final Point: “Treatment” Is a Broad Term!

The final point worth mentioning is the word “treatment” when it comes to dog cancer does not have a clear meaning.

“Treatments” vary.

Is a low carbohydrate diet a “treatment”?

Is chemotherapy a “treatment” if it increases median life expectancy by 8-14 months but cancer returns?

Are supporting immunity or normal apoptosis levels treatments?

How about pain control?

Herbs? Homeopathics?

Cancer is not a black-and-white subject, so we need to be careful about the words we use.  We need to be careful about deciding what is right for other people as we don’t know or understand the issue at hand.

We need to recall that there is almost always more to the story than we know, even when we think we know a lot.

All my best,

Dr. D



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  1. Pat Mulieri on March 16, 2019 at 7:21 am

    Took Gigi to new vet for cbd oil. She is asnappy chi. Her surgery was oct 3 all mamary chain removed. Now skinthat vet pulled tight has a tumor and another. one emerged. The vet giving cbd oil does not think I should do surgery. She had surgery last June. Tumors removed, by oct moretumors these removed now two more. Doctor who prescribed cbd, not surgeon feels I should leave till they rupture andthen eu. I am waiting to hear from vet who did her surgeries. I do not want to Eu. She has been on appo caps since she was diagnosed I wanted to give doxy but vet does not agree. She was a breederthrown out of a car. I rescued. I love her. She had been a good eater and yesterday ate less food and has soft pooh. She is sleeping well. Herpathology reports of the two surgeries says margins not clear. Should I takeherto a special surgeon. I love her so and funding not anissue.

    • Molly Jacobson on March 18, 2019 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Pat, thanks for writing, and I’m sorry your Gigi (and you) are going through this. It sounds like you have done a tremendous amount for her. Since funding is not an issue, you are lucky to be able to consult with a specialist if you choose. The only thing I would ask is this: what are you going to look back on and regret more, consulting with a new surgical specialist, or not consulting? You might go and hear “Sorry, I wouldn’t operate.” Or you might hear “I can operate, but there are no guarantees more lumps won’t come later.” You might hear about the risks of anesthesia. But at least you’ll have had a conversation. If you can afford it, and you think you would look back later and think “maybe I should have taken her to a specialist,” you might want to go. But just be prepared to hear anything, including things you might not want to hear 🙁 If you think you would look back later and think “I wish I hadn’t wasted that money on something that didn’t help her,” maybe you shouldn’t do it. In the end, no one can tell you what to do. I would just sit with her and feel what life is like for her, and for you, and see if there is a decision that comes your way. Sometimes we just need to check in with our pups to see what the best thing is. Gigi knows if another trip to another vet is worthwhile. Maybe she can tell you. Many blessings.

  2. Julie Miller on March 14, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    I totally agree 100%. We have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. he is 11 years old. It was discovered that he had a malignant anal gland tumour, that was removed through surgery. Fortunately for us the cancer hadn’t spread. Before the result we decided for him, no chemotherapy or radiotherapy. We would not want to put him through that just to extend his age perhaps one or two years. But I did decide on a ketogenic diet, which has very little carbs, and I am continuing with this. I just have to hope the cancer doesn’t return, but it is in God’s hands, not mine.

  3. Lois Tickle on March 13, 2019 at 6:13 am

    I cannot begin to stress how important this is….some things cannot be fixed. And it is incredibly important for those who have the knowledge to provide it clearly and honestly. To tell us when it cannot be fixed. To be honest about side effects and risks and even pain. To tell us everything, so we can make the decision that is best for our beloved dogs, especially when the cancer has metastasized.

    My Thor’s oncologist was not one of the above. Fortunately, before I amputated his leg and embarked on the recommended treatment, I was able to find a knowledgeable person who would be honest. While the grief threatened to kill me, I was able to do the right thing for Thor. We were literally minutes from amputation. Had we proceeded, I could never have forgiven myself for what he would have been put through as chemo for the rest of the few weeks he might have had. I will forever be grateful to the friend who is a human cancer researcher and was willing to be honest.

    Bless you sir for being honest. I know how hard it is. But we, as guardians, need that honesty.

  4. Kathy Wieland on March 12, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    I really loved this issue. I can definitely relate.
    Thank you for the honesty Dr.D.

  5. Rene from Tripawds on March 12, 2019 at 5:03 am

    Bravo! Thank you for getting the message out!

    This is something we emphasize to our members every day: there are no right or wrong choices when it comes to cancer in our pets, it’s an entirely personal decision. We support folks either way in their journey.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. Lory on March 12, 2019 at 3:35 am

    Isn’t not treating your pets cancer kind of a “treatment plan”? Sometimes doing nothing is better. If you had cancer would you spend your last days on earth searching and hoping for a cure that likely will never happen? Or would you spend the time you have left doing what you want to do? Maybe you can’t afford to pay the insanely expensive prices for your pets health care. Or maybe trying everything under the sun and prolonging your pets suffering until they finally succumb to the cancer is what you decide to do. Maybe you don’t have the time to be totally devoted to your pets care 24 hours a day. There are so many different things to factor in when making decisions. There’s no right or wrong way because we don’t get do overs. You can’t say ok that way didn’t work let’s go back and try a different way. You live and you learn. We shouldn’t judge people so harshly when they don’t do what you or I believe in.